Meet the new Joey Burns-a soft-spoken man with a sweet, self-conscious smile and a passionate gift for conversation. He's not the same man he was a few years ago. He's been compared to Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, but says he doesn't even consider himself an artist.
"I'm more of an artisan. I incorporate all the arts into what I do," he says. When asked what it is he does, he effortlessly rattles off his mantra: "It's esoteric, metaphysical decoupage-montage, collage-called Joey's 'page [pahzh] for short."
His medium is trash. Scraps of paper meticulously culled from magazines, newspapers, product packaging-faces of celebrities, logos, random words, illustrations, bits of song lyrics, stories and advertising imagery. Anything is a potential piece of the puzzle. Throw in some fabric, twigs, leaves, swaths of carpet and various other small objects. These random bits of refuse are consecrated with Elmer's glue and imagination, and layered into intricate mosaics.
Looking at these little shrines to our disposable pop culture, Burns' mantra almost seems an understatement.
"It's kind of trivial," he admits. "It's pop, but then it goes deeper, I think, to a poetic level. To me, they're poetic. They're dramatic-like songs, or dances. I'm a performer by nature, and they do sing. They dance. They act. They're like little storyboards. You could look at them and make up a story."
He pauses as if to remember something: "There's a lot of drama going on in them sometimes, on an emotional level. They're very chaotic."
Rarely has art so imitated life.
The old Joey was a fixture on the streets of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, hunched against various walls, plying his artistic vision. For 20 years, he was homeless and dually diagnosed: schizo-affective with a depression/mood disorder. Add to that the desperate habit of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and he's the story of the streets. But it wasn't always that way.
He was born 47 years ago in the Bay Area suburb of Pittsburg, Calif. By the time he was 2, he'd been bitten by the bug: acting, dancing and singing.
Musical comedy was his lifelong passion, and he studied drama at USC in the '70s, hoping to make a career of the theater. He migrated to Hollywood and landed cameos on prime-time television-The Jeffersons, The Love Boat, The White Shadow. He spent some time doing theater in London in the late '70s; in the early '80s, he did clerical work for the L.A. Times to pay the bills.
He attributes his descent into madness to a singular, seemingly innocuous marijuana incident: "I don't know what was in that stuff, but I went out of my tree and I've never been the same since."
Altered and dysfunctional, he wound up bumming around Los Angeles, sleeping across the street from the L.A. Times building. For the next 20 years, Joey Burns wandered the West Coast, wearing out his welcome in Los Angeles, Venice Beach, the Bay Area and San Diego. It was during these dark times that he started collecting street signs, plywood, cardboard posters-anything flat-and began developing his art.
Amid the haze of mental illness and despair, his collages were a lifeline to his former creative self, and they became a form of therapy.
Three years ago, on the streets of San Diego, things began to turn. As he pieced together his esoteric, metaphysical decoupages, a deeper truth took root: he was gathering the shards of his own broken psyche and preparing his soul for a spiritual reawakening. People began to notice his talent and pay him for his work. Through the generosity of some new friends, he entered the Reach Rehabilitaion Program and eight months ago completely devoted himself to recovery at La Mesa's Pegasus East, a service of Mental Health Systems Inc.
The new Joey Burns now lives in a house on 30th Street, just around the corner from his new church and North Park's burgeoning art scene. He recently had his first real gallery showing. His work hangs in coffeehouses and bookstores all over town, and people are beginning to pay pretty good money for one of his creations.
For this interview, we sit in his backyard, a concept that thrills him. There are dozens of his works, some old, some still in progress, scattered around the lawn and leaning against fences.
"There's a big difference being on the streets and being here," he says. "I've made many of these, you know, but not at this level. I'm inside. I'm stable in my mind. I've definitely had a spiritual rebirth-and if there's hope for me, there's hope for anybody."
The transformation seems genuine. We talk about his dreams to evolve his art into some type of experimental theater. He says he still dreams of making it to Broadway.
I ask him about some of the older, yellowed pieces.
"That's what happens when they sit in the sun," he grins. "They've weathered the storm. They've been around the block like I have. That's what I like. They've been kicked a little bit, but they've weathered the storm and they come out with character." He speaks with a wisdom born of suffering, without a shred of bitterness. It's truly humbling.
"I used to hear people yell, "Get a job!' and sometimes I wanted to cry. Then someone would say, "You know, you make people happy,' and to make people happy and make people smile is important in this world today. And if that's what I do, then I've done my job."
Joey Burns' art is on display at North Park Deli, 3823 30th St., and at The Living Room Coffeehouse, 1417 University Ave., Hillcrest.